George MacDonald wrote novels with good characters that are interesting. That, you know, is not so easy to achieve. MacDonald was held in high esteem back in the 19th century. Not so much today, but he is a better writer than I think he’s given credit for. Not only for his good characters, but also for his deft handling of descriptions and situations and many other things.
I’m doing Donal Grant on the recommendation of a friend here. He made the remark that he finds these books by MacDonald cleansing. I remember reading Phantastes with what Lewis said in mind: that he was thereby exposed to pure goodness (something like that). As I read Donal Grant, I sense there is a great mountain freshness of joy and contentment in what MacDonald presents, and this gladness of purity is, I think, the thing of which Lewis speaks.
MacDonald’s books are still being read and still being kept in print. He exerts a fascination still. I spoke with three people at church recently who have read MacDonald. In two of the conversations his anti-Calvinist views came up: he poses a dilemma. One of the persons I talked to did her MA thesis on MacDonald and said when she came to his views on the atonement she had to shut the book she was reading. So much does MacDonald draw us with a vision that is so good we do not even want to believe any wrong of him.
And he is good. Even people who will wonder if he’s a Christian will cleave to his books for good reasons, if with some misgivings. I myself have found his clear mountain air bracing. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out where exactly he’s coming from. I haven’t got a whole lot yet from him, but I have figured out that the abridged versions distort his theology somewhat. Probably not enough to avoid the problem, but enough to aggravate it and push clarity further away.
I think there are two basic things we love. One is the doctrine of original innocence, which is not entirely wrong. Yes, in Adam we all sinned, but it stands to reason that we are still haunted by the memory of that original innocence before the fall. It calls us to return—and we are made to want it, if only in the sense that we realize our loss. Death is the return to it, and MacDonald’s full of the atmosphere of good death.
Nobody taps into this original innocence like the tradition of Traherne, Wordsworth and here George MacDonald. The tradition of original innocence of which they found childhood more than representative is overdone; we recoil. But if it is only representative of what haunts not our personal but our racial memory, then I think it works. I think that’s why it wins us and why we do more than recoil. We don’t have to follow them as far as they go.
The second thing is that though the earth is cursed, it was first blessed. Besides the blessing, everything originally was made good. That goodness cannot be absolutely effaced as long as there’s something. And, actually, there’s much of it. Calvinists speak of common grace. I myself think it is a common goodness which is in the world due to how it has been made. This goodness isn’t simply good quality product, but is derived from its Creator. That is why we have a sense of it in myths of natural divinities, nature goddesses, etc. There is something suggesting divinity in the work of God just as there is Bachness in the work of Bach and Boschness in the work of Bosch. Something in the deep rooted goodness of creation suggests beyond it someone better.
But there is more. MacDonald was tainted by something that seems like old fashioned theological modernism. He was influenced by things he got from German romanticism (a good place to get ideas nonetheless). He affirmed that Christ’s death was a display of the love of God. But he denied it was anything else, and that’s the problem. What MacDonald had was not all right, but that is not to say it was all wrong.
Here’s what I think: his restricted view allowed him to see something that had been obstructed for him before—goodness and gladness not only allowed but also better explained. In the world that George MacDonald shows us we see something we desire: a benevolence working in all things the good of everybody absolutely. This is not altogether true, but it does hold for God’s people, for believers. The Apostle Paul says that. But what MacDonald presents is the world of believers only, and that’s not the real world, not the world the Apostle speaks of. Still, it is a real enough part of the world at present.
Does Calvinism have its grimmer, joyless corners? It did for MacDonald—and who will say that this effect was unique to him? There are terrible, relentless Calvinists who do not make of the mysteries of our religion wonders but instead make of them heavy awful things. And there are certainly heavy and awful things; but that is not exclusively what God is, yet that is what some relentless, terrible Calvinists seem to make of him and his ways. George MacDonald, it seems to me, reacted to that and went to the other extreme. Unfortunately, he refused to imagine God’s holy wrath in terms of justice. He seems to have imagined that God’s wrath is really God’s relentless and mastering love. He did not believe in eternal punishment except in theory because he believed that God’s will to bring all to repentance would not ultimately be thwarted. That is not too far from being Calvinism, except that it includes far more people than Calvinism will allow. (That probably makes him the only person ever who could say with integrity he was neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian; and yes, it does appear he said that.)
But he strongly believed in repentance, and he did not believe any would be saved unless he repented and was converted. With MacDonald’s view, conversion may not be so urgent—if you don’t repent now, you will eventually—but it is nevertheless necessary.
I think that’s what can save George MacDonald. There is a turning from idols to God, from sin in repentance to faith in the forgiveness Christ offers. He does not explain adequately how that atonement works, but is it necessary to understand how it works in order to believe that it works? The tougher question is: what did MacDonald’s deliberate refusal mean? Atonement without justice? It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I do think at that point inconsistency may have saved him: can he have said that God is not just? He can have implied it, but I don’t think he meant to. Would he say God punishes sin? Yes. With hell? Yes. It’s just he’d say God always does it with remedial rather than punitive motives. That is, but isn’t just. It has to do with his view of God’s skill which is pretty high (i.e. omnipotence). It does leave the atonement sadly sagging.
It would be easier if MacDonald had not been willing to suffer for his convictions. He suffered like a Calvinist, convinced in God’s sovereign disposal of all things for the good of his elect. And he suffered for his inadequate views of the atonement . . . here’s the thing: for the sake of principle. It was compromise and comfort, or conviction and reproach. He chose the latter. Money, pleasure and power cannot have moved him to take his stand. At least we ought to say he was a deep one. I doubt he suffered for his view of the atonement alone–I think it is more of a package deal, if that’s any mitigation.
MacDonald shows us something like the lighted side of that great pillar of fire by night, not the Egyptian side (and that’s an important part of it). His view is of the world for the believer in that light, and the light shining through it is the light of Christ on his people. His characters are also luminous with that light, and we love them because they show us Christ’s goodness and mercy and tender severity with his own.
What is the fascination in the depths of all depths? What is it in the deepest researches of all things that makes all of creation interesting? Creation’s Creator, that’s what. And in the case of George MacDonald’s characters, not their creator’s character, though that’s part of it, but beyond that it is the view of Christ we get. It is not what Christ did for us, much as it means for our conversion, that serves to guide us and point us in the way of righteousness, it is what he showed us in the loveliness of his obedience. I mean that in the sense that we cannot emulate our Savior in his once-for-all death, but we can in the example of his life and character. That, I think, is what George MacDonald helps us with.
Feel free to point out any gaps I didn’t anticipate. I’d welcome it.